The Bridge of San Luis Rey

by Thornton Wilder

Paperback, 1986

Call number

FIC WIL

Collection

Publication

Harpercollins (1986), Edition: Reprint, 160 pages

Description

This beautiful new edition features unpublished notes for the novel and other illuminating documentary mate- rial, all of which is included in a new Afterword by Tappan Wilder. "On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714,the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below." With this celebrated sentence Thornton Wilder begins The Bridge of San Luis Rey, one of the towering achievements in American fiction and a novel read throughout the world. By chance, a monk witnesses the tragedy. Brother Juniper then embarks on a quest to prove that it was divine intervention rather than chance that led to the deaths of those who perished in the tragedy. His search leads to his own death -- and to the author's timeless investigation into the nature of love and the meaning of the human condition.… (more)

Media reviews

It is no exaggeration to say that on second reading I was completely blown away, not so much by Wilder's sensitive treatment of his central theme as by the richness and power of his prose. It is an entirely remarkable book, it has lost none of its pertinence in the eight decades since its publication, and I'm very glad indeed that my old friend sent me back to it.

User reviews

LibraryThing member lyzard
Peru, 1714. A rope bridge over a deep gorge collapses, sending five people plummeting to their deaths. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk, witnesses the tragedy. The collapse of the bridge is, in his mind, an unambiguous Act of God; therefore, there must have been a purpose in it---and in the circumstances which brought each of the five to the bridge. Determined, first, to understand this himself, so that he may demonstrate it to others, Brother Juniper begins to investigate the five lives so abruptly cut short: those of the Marquesa de Montemayor, unhappily estranged from her beloved daughter, to whom she writes copious letters which will bring her posthumous fame; Pepita, a girl from a convent-orphanage, who is destined for great works by the convent's Abbess; Esteban, a young scribe left alone and confused by the death of his twin, Manuel; Uncle Pio, who has devoted his life to the training of a great actress, only to see her lose interest in the drama; and Don Jaime, the actress's small son, whom Uncle Pio takes into his own care when his mother is struck down by small-pox and poverty... This short novel from 1927 by Thornton Wilder addresses the literally eternal question of whether the world is the work of an interventionist God, or whether the fate of mankind is dictated by an often unhappy blending of random events and free will: a question often summed up - as, tacitly, it is within the book itself - in terms of bad things happening to good people. Beautifully written, and full of astute and often painfully ironic observations upon the human condition, The Bridge Of San Luis Rey is of course no more capable of answering the questions it raises than any other work of literature or philosophy either before or after it. Brother Juniper soon loses sight of the fact that while the devil may be in the details, God is not. His increasingly unsatisfactory "report", which only becomes more unsatisfactory as it assembles more and more facts, finally acts as an ironic reflection of the novel which contains it: a novel which begins with its omniscient narrator conceding his lack of omniscience. We, like Brother Juniper, are left with the perception of a confusing, often cruelly random world, in which each individual can only do his or her best---whether in the sense of "God's will be done", or the more pragmatic one of "shit happens". Which side of this conclusion Thornton Wilder rests upon is evident in his novel's famous and much-quoted coda - There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning - yet there is nevertheless an inescapable feeling that in this, he was writing against himself. Isolation and loneliness are recurrent themes in Wilder's writing, and The Bridge Of San Luis Rey is a far more convincing work when it is detailing the way in which human beings inevitably fail each other than it is in its final suggestions of enduring connections and survival through love.

The result of all this diligence was an enormous book, which, as we shall see later, was publicly burned on a beautiful Spring morning in the great square. But there was a secret copy, and after a great many years and without much notice it found its way to the library of the University of San Martin. There it lies between the two great wooden covers collecting dust in a cupboard. It deals with one after another of the victims of the accident, cataloguing thousands of little facts and anecdotes and and testimonies, and concluding with a dignified passage describing why God had settled upon that person or upon that day for His demonstration of wisdom. Yet for all his diligence, Brother Juniper never knew the central passion of Doña Maria's life; nor of Uncle Pio's; not even of Esteban's. And I, who claim to know so much more, isn't it possible that even I have missed the very spring within the spring?
Some say that we shall never know, and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God...
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LibraryThing member absurdeist
Thornton Wilder successfully fictionalized some ages-old core questions that have haunted humanity since its inception in his short novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Why do bad things happen? Why do bad things happen to good people? Is there a plan or purpose behind the bad happenings? A reason? Are bad happenings such as the one depicted in the novel -- the collapse of a bridge, a "ladder of thin slats swung out over a gorge, with handrails of dried vine" -- or other bad happenings such as natural disasters or war, "acts of God" or acts of fate? Are bad happenings meaningful or meaningless? If the events in Wilder's novel are not "acts of God" does that then mean that the deaths served no purpose and the victim's lives had no meaning, or could the disaster, in it's aftermath, somehow, be it by God or by other mysterious forces, be used for good in the lives of those left grieving, behind? Complicated, convoluted questions, this slim, but intense, beautifully written novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, raises.

Wilder, of course, doesn't explicitly answer these universal questions, though by novel's end, our narrator, Brother Juniper, eyewitness to the bridges collapse: "He saw the bridge divide and fling five gesticulating ants into the valley below..." certainly has answered some of them. Though in some socks-you-in-the-gut, harsh irony, Brother Juniper, after he's dared ask why -- why did these people die?, why did the bridge collapse for them instead of others? -- and then travelled by foot great distances to probe the lives and personal histories of those who fell for possible clues to answer the deeper questions of why that are only natural for an inquisitive mind's pursuit, ultimately becomes the sixth and final victim of San Luis Rey's collapse. Brother Juniper lacked the foresight in seeing how dangerous his questions were in a culture whose pious insularity accepted nothing less than rote avowals of faith in God's sovereign will. Moreover, Brother Juniper was stealing time from his ascetic commitments to solitude and prayer in order to play detective. In the least he was egregiously undisciplined; at worst, a heretic. But his fellow monks got it wrong. Because Brother Juniper sought in his investigations not to disprove his Catholic faith or the sovereignty of God, but to affirm his faith in God. Not surprisingly, Brother Juniper's rational, rather than preprogrammed-faith approach, in attempting to determine why those five perished when and where and how they perished, was condemned as insubordination and blasphemy, an unforgivable rejection of God's goodness and sovereignty. How dare a middling monk not take God automatically on faith! For the sin of suggesting God's will could be accessed through an investigation -- through empiricism -- Brother Juniper, a devout and faithful Catholic, became a martyr for science.

If there are any answers in this brutal universe that can explain how Evil and Human Suffering can comfortably coexist alongside a purported All-Good and Omnipotent God, a deity to be trusted and praised by its adherents even when disasters on a scale more monstrous than the collapse of a flimsy bridge in Peru occur ... say the collapse of the Twin Towers or the unending collapse that is Genocide ... then it's clear to me that Brother Juniper was successful in his quest.
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LibraryThing member gbill
“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” And so begins The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which is a small masterpiece. Wilder’s prose is beautiful and he creates great character sketches in a work that is all framed to consider the question “Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual’s own will?” He applies just the right touch artistically for so weighty a subject, and in the end, as in life, the “answer” is really up to the reader. Highly recommended.

Some fun facts: Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and graduated from Berkeley High School. The book launched him to immediate worldwide fame; his teaching salary at the time was $3,000 and the book made him $87,000 in 1928 alone, which is about a million dollars in today’s currency. Lastly, David Mitchell fans will recall the character Luisa Rey, named as an homage to this work, as well as perhaps recall the epigraph to Ghostwritten, taken from the end of the first chapter:
“And I, who claim to know so much more, isn’t it possible that even I have missed the very spring within the spring?
Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.”

A couple of other quotes that I loved:
On literature:
“…the Conde delighted in her letters, but he thought that when he had enjoyed the style he had extracted all their richness and intention, missing (as most readers do) the whole purport of literature, which is the notation of the heart.”

And this one on love, which I found that Tony Blair used in a memorial service for British victims of 9/11:
“But soon we shall die and all memories of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."
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LibraryThing member writestuff
Thornton Wilder earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1928 for The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which has been called his masterpiece. The novella (only 107 pages) begins in the summer of 1714 when a bridge of great construction fails and plunges five people to their deaths in the gorge below. A witness to the tragedy, Brother Juniper, embarks on a quest to prove divine intervention by exploring (in great depth) the lives of the people killed.

The book is essentially a lesson in philosophy - exploring the meaning of love, the twists and turns of one's life amid the greater scheme of things, and whether death is fate or God's plan. There are not any real answers to any of the questions - just the questions.

Wilder writes in old fashioned language and the novella is set in a foreign country with all the subtle references to politics and religion of the time. I admit to getting dragged down in it all and struggled to slog through and finish the book.

Wilder's character development is one of the strengths of the book; and Wilder does this within a very few pages which speaks to his gift as a writer. My favorite characters were the twins Esteban and Manual and I think Wilder does an apt job of presenting their relationship to each other and the devastation of loss that occurs between them. Wilder connects all the central characters to each other...something that took me by surprise...sort of like the six degrees of separation theory. Because of this I expected a resolution to the ultimate question: Could it have been fate that plunged these people to their deaths? Or something larger? But, Wilder apparently never intended to provide an answer. In the afterword of the book I read, the publisher shares a letter from Wilder to one of his readers:

'The book is not supposed to solve. A vague comfort is supposed to hover above the unanswered questions, but it is not a theorem with its Q.E.D. The book is supposed to be as puzzling and distressing as the news that five of your friends died in an automobile accident.'

Perhaps had this been a non fiction philosophy text, I could accept Wilder's cop out on this issue. But, this is a work of fiction and I wanted the character of Brother Juniper to at least come to his own conclusion. Instead, the reader is left with an odd feeling of detachment.

Because this has been touted as a great work of literature, I wanted not only to like it, but to "get it." I'm sorry to say, neither of those things happened.

Not recommended.
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LibraryThing member Joycepa
Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, 1928.

The best stories are morality tales, and the best of those are ambiguous, leaving the reader or listener to draw their own conclusions. Wilder wrote a stunning example in The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

A short book (just 107 pages in my edition), Wilder writes in a deceptively simple style--that of a narrator who recounts and summarizes Brother Juniper’s investigations into the lives of 5 people who were suddenly and without warning thrown to their deaths when the famous bridge at San Luis Rey in Peru--constructed by the Incas and having stood for centuries--suddenly breaks on July 20th, 1714. Brother Juniper, who has long held a theory about God’s reasons for terminating some lives and not others in seemingly random accidents, is convinced that he can uncover God’s plan for these five people if he digs deep enough into their lives.

What follows in Wilder’s book is an account of those five lives, all of which, in some fashion or another, are interconnected with one of them, the Marquesa de Montremayor.

Wilder’s language style appears to be deceptive simple, somehow fits perfectly with the era and the place. My edition has an afterword by Tappan Wilder, the author’s nephew, who discusses Wilder’s love of French literature and particularly the letters of the Marquese de Sévigné, on whom the Marquesa de Montremayor is modeled. The linguistic style of these 17th century letters with its emotional distance and irony imparts a powerful impact to the story, especially to the conclusion, which Tony Blair read at a memorial for those who died on September 11, 2001:

“But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves will be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

There are few books that linger on in my mind after I read them, no matter how much I’ve enjoyed them. The Bridge of San Luis Rey is one of those precious few.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member sammii507
This was a fantastic book. I love books that pose big questions, and the question posed in this book is one of the biggest. Having lost friends to accidents and to suicide, it's a question that has gone through my mind repeatedly - why them? What does it mean? While Wilder does not exactly answer the question (he leaves it for the reader to decide), he poses it brilliantly and beautifully. This is a book that really gets you thinking, which is how all great books should be.… (more)
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Thornton Wilder's short novel ends with the following sentence: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning." This conclusion to his story of the death of five innocents as the title bridge collapses is a clue to some of the meaning that one may glean from this well-written novel.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1928, this novel certainly qualifies as a classic. In my recent, long overdue, reading I found the style fitting for a tale of Peru with the prose evocative of the setting; however, the individual parts were uneven and only with the the story of Uncle Pio did I find the theme of love emerging in a meaningful way for me. Perhaps the opening story of the Marquesa and her daughter, with its layers of Catholicism, was too foreign for me to appreciate. The doppleganger existence of the twins, Esteban and Manuel, was also a strange interlude. Holding the story together like a thread of beautiful silk was the young Camila Perichole (based on a real person as was the Marquesa). Whatever the reason, the novel unfolded for me slowly and became a better read as I neared the ending with its famous sentence. The question of innocence and guilt and who deserves to die remains in my mind long after I laid the novel down. It is certainly one of the very best first novels that I have read and I will likely return to it.
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
I am certainly not the first, nor will I be the last, to recognize the brilliance of this novella. This is my first Thornton Wilder read.....how I could have made it this far in life without reading his work is beyond me. Somehow he manages to create vivid and memorable characters who share the experience of dying when a bridge collapses. From that event he proceeds to ask profound and essentially unanswerable questions, of the sort we all try to address or avoid throughout our life. Is there intention? Is there meaning? When is it the right time for as person to die? Is there such a thing or is it all happenstance? The introduction for this 75th anniversary edition of the novel by Russell Banks is excellent. He draws a parallel between the experience of those surviving the bridge collapse to those surviving the 9/11 attacks. The same eternal questions apply. Lovely, powerful prose makes this so very readable and timeless!… (more)
LibraryThing member maryreinert
This short book tells the story of five people who lost their lives when the Bridge of San Luis Rey fell in Peru in the 1700's. Each chapter tells a story of one individual. The narrative begins when Father Junniper thinks he can find a rationale for why some are chosen to die and some are not. Is it that God has called the chosen or that the evil are finding their rewards. An eccentric Marquesa dies just after making a decision to change her life; her servant girl dies along with her. Estaban, a twin who has lost his brother dies while the Captain who he was accompanying is saved because he needs to go the lower road. Uncle Peo, an old friend of a famous actress dies along with her son.

Each of these people had some connection to the Abbess of a convent. The final chapter find relatives of the victims visiting the Abbess. Each of the victims was loved by someone; some will be remembered by many and some will be forgotten, but there is a thread of love connecting all.
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LibraryThing member sergerca
We all have a worldview (don't we?) that influences just about everything we encounter. Literature is no exception.

In many of the reviews I've read of Thornton Wilder's outstanding The Bridge of San Luis Rey many have stated that Wilder leaves the main conclusion up to the reader. I must disagree. The final line, so quoted by many of the reviewers, makes is all very clear to me. "All those impulses of love return to the love that made them." Perhaps, had Wilder capitalized the second "love" more would have drawn the same conclusion as I. That love is, of course, the love of the Father.

This short book is rooted in Christian realism -- summed up in that final page. Life is a mystery to the believer. Seemingly saintly people die far too early in inexplicable circumstances-- a bridge that has lasted for centuries one day breaks under the weight of an old woman, a cripple, an old man, a young girl, and a young man. But the "why" is not for us to know. We all must live in the comfort that it is His will that reigns, not ours, and that the love which sustained us in this life will see us to the next.

No doubt, Brother Juniper found his answer. If not, I at least recognized mine.
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LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
"The Bridge of San Luis Rey" is a perfect little book, and also a perfect, little book. No wonder it's been read and reread for so long, and filmed so many times. Actually, I saw the film first, the one with Gabriel Byrne and Harvey Keitel, and now that I can compare the two, I can say that the film is one of the finest adaptations of anything in a long, long time.

The story, such as it is, concerns the study by a man of the cloth of the tragedy of the fall of the eponymous bridge. He asks, could this have been God's plan?, and he spends years interviewing subjects to find out all about those who perished. It's a terribly sad story, full of meaning and truths half-forgotten, and written with such panache that it's hard to give this anything but full marks.
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LibraryThing member Carmenere
I read this book several years ago and this reread confirmed what I knew back then, Wilder can write!
Five people in Peru are crossing a bridge when in an instant they all are plunging to their deaths in the valley below.
Certainly poetic in style this little novella invites the reader to think about fate, destiny and happenstance. Every reader will walk away with a different interpretation of the events related here and too the aftermath inflicted upon those who were left behind.
A classic that will never grow old.
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LibraryThing member varwenea
I simply love this little book. At page 40, my heart panged just so, when two of the five travelers had fallen into the gulf. How did Thornton Wilder captivate me in a mere 40 pages?? Apparently, it IS heart. (See quote.)

This 1927 novel starts with: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” Brother Jupiter, who had witnessed this accident, proceeds to prove the divinity of this accident. In the three parts that follow, we learn the lives of the five travelers. All had lacked a certain loving element in their lives, and all were about to embark on a new journey in life when the accident happened. Those who are left behind, in part five, examine themselves and the role they had played.

The perfected brevity, the richness in personalities, the delicately intertwined lives, and the elegant prose were all a joy to read. I hungrily underlined far too many gems. Learning that it was a Pulitzer Prize winner of 1928 makes sense. Like many of today’s Pulitzer winners, I sense a touch of defiance of the norm, which in this case was the church – unforgiving, literal, Inquisition, and male dominated. As a contrast and balance, the Abbess played a nurturing role, and she too feels suffocated. While reading this book, I felt vibes of “Cloud Atlas”, likely because of the intertwined characters. I was surprised to learn from Wiki that David Mitchell had in fact named Luisa Rey after this book including her fall from the bridge. Go figure.

Some quotes:
In honor of its charming brevity, I’m keeping this short too despite the many smiley’s I wrote on margins.

On Literature – good writing needs heart!
“…the Conde delighted in her letters, but he thought that when he had enjoyed the style he had extracted all their richness and intention, missing (as most readers do) the whole purport of literature, which is the notation of the heart. Style is but the faintly contemptible vessel in which the bitter liquid is recommended to the world.”

On Infatuation:
“It was not the first time that Manuel had been fascinated by a woman…, but it was the first time that his will and imagination had been thus overwhelmed. He had lost that privilege of simple nature, the dissociation of love and pleasure. Pleasure was no longer as simple as eating; it was being complicated by love. Now was the beginning that crazy loss of one’s self, that neglect of everything but one’s dramatic thoughts about the beloved…”

On Love – I love this:
“But soon we shall die and all memories of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."
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LibraryThing member dablackwood
Just a couple of quick comments. I think I was supposed to read this in high school but somehow didn't. Maybe I read the Cliffs Notes. Anyway, I'm sort of glad I waited until now to read this lovely book. It's hard for me to believe Thornton Wilder was only 30 when he published this. It is an amazing novel - very short, very precise and exactly right. A group of people could spend days discussing the implications of the bridge disaster as compared to 9/11 or even the personal tragedies we all suffer. How does it feel to be left behind? Why were these 5 the ones to fall from the bridge? So many questions.… (more)
LibraryThing member fuzzy_patters
I really liked this book. I waffled for a few minutes about whether it deserves 4 or 5 stars, and I finally settled on 5 stars. The only reason why I hesitated was that some of the characters had some inconsistencies that were jarring at times, but I think that was intentional on the authors part. The essence of the book was the complexities of man that makes it difficult to judge their worth and salvation, and these sudden inconsistencies portray this complexity.

For those unfamiliar with the book, Wilder has invented a character, Brother Juniper, who wants to prove the existence of God scientifically. His method is to study the lives of five characters who plunged to their deaths when the Bridge of San Luis Rey (fictional) collapsed in Lima, Peru in the late eighteenth century. He hopes that through studying these five characters, he will be able to ascertain why their lives were suddenly ended by God, whether it be due to punishment for their sins or salvation due to their piety.

What follows is a brilliant study of the complexities of man and what makes us who we are as well as the difficulties of determining the existence of God and, if he exists, his nature. Wilder does a wonderful job of presenting the important questions about the meaning of our existence and the worth of individual lives without ever answering his questions. The end result is that book stays with the reader for hours after reading it as you try an unravel some of these philosophical questions on your own. I found it to be a thought-provoking book for the modern reader, just as I'm sure it was when it was first published in the 1920s, and I highly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member jeffome
Not sure i got this one......Pulitzer Prize???? Really???? I even had the special Reader's Enrichment Series editionand read the quasi-Cliff's Notes in the back, and i still did not get it. Modestly interesting at best..sort of a several degrees of separation story in reverse stepping back to follow the lives of several different people as they head towards a tragic event that ended all of their lives. Lots of troubled souls wading through the socially stratified Lima, Peru of the early 1700's. Lots of references to the relationship between Peru and Spain, lots of references to 17th Century Spanish literature and Catholic beliefs that i had no connection with whatsoever, and therefore felt somewhat left behind. Maybe 1927 was a weak year in Literature.....or maybe I just am a little too simple.....Basically, I would not recommend this to any other than rabid bookies that need to read all the prize-winners, just because.....sorry.… (more)
LibraryThing member browner56
An ancient bridge outside of Lima, Peru collapses and five people fall to their deaths. Was this just a random accident or was it the fulfillment of God’s plans for those unfortunate victims? Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk who should have been on the bridge and witnessed the collapse, devotes the next several years of his life to addressing that question. He delves into the histories of the victims and compiles a voluminous account of his findings, which is viewed as an act of heresy by some Church elders.

Despite Brother Juniper’s efforts, there are no easy answers to be found in this slim, thought-provoking book. Certainly, there is no clear indication that Divine Intervention was responsible for the tragic incident, nor can we be sure that it was the result of pure chance. Readers must draw their own conclusions and there is no shortage of modern comparisons on which to reflect (e.g., 9/11, Japanese tsunami, Chilean earthquake).

I grew up thinking of Thornton Wilder as more of a playwright than a novelist; “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” was actually the first of his books that I read. What I think now is that Wilder was simply a splendid writer, regardless of his chosen form. This is a book that can be read quite quickly, but its images and the questions it poses will take you far longer to fully digest.
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LibraryThing member lucybrown
I read this because it was reviewed in Johnathan Yardley's Second Readings. I have always felt that I should read it but a sort of snobbishness kept me from it. I imagined that it would be one of those little pat pseudo-philosophic novels along the line of The Old Man & the Sea. My judgement was not too far off. Unlike the The Old Man, The Bridge of San Luis Rey is well and elegantly written. The characters seem less stock and there is not penchant for poor dialect. That said I did not love this book. I suppose I have a low tolerance for obvious allegory and "message" stories. However, I didn't dislike it either, the way I disliked Siddhartha and The Old Man. Actually, I loathed those two. Any book I can see someone closing and saying "Wow man, that was heavy," automatically loses a point or two. Now, I like heavy, even love heavy. Hell, I read Spinoza for kicks. However, I want the heaviness to come at me aslant and kick me in the ass or even better sneak up on me a few days later and make my head spin 180 degrees a la Exorcist, rather than come straight at me and hit me between the eyes.

Four stars for the elegance of the prose and the humor which redeem the work.
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LibraryThing member krobk
A beautiful, elegiac discourse on the nature of love and life. Rarely do I read such moving literature. The prose boarders on poetic. I would highly recommend this. It's a quick read, but deserves carful contemplation.
LibraryThing member 1morechapter
This Pulitzer-winning book was the first of three Pulitzers for Thornton Wilder, who also won for his plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. It has an interesting premise. One that people could relate to today (in light of the Omaha Mall killings) and in recent years (9/11). When a bridge collapses near Lima, Peru, the question is asked, “Why did those five particular individuals die, and the rest did not?” A monk who witnesses the event seeks to delve into the lives of the five who were killed and into the lives of the survivors to see if he can find any answers. The book then flashes back to the histories of those dead, and we get a glimpse of their goodness and piety (or lack thereof) and their usefulness to society. This ‘formula’ is used by the monk to try to determine an explanation to this question.

I have read Our Town and have also seen it performed, but I was not prepared for Wilder’s gorgeous writing. I will definitely be seeking out more of his books and plays. Two that look promising are Theophilus North and the one-act play “The Long Christmas Dinner.”

I’ll leave you with a sample of his prose:

"All night they talked, secretly comforting their hearts that longed always for Spain and telling themselves that such a symposium was after the manner of the high Spanish soul. They talked about ghosts and second-sight, and about the earth before man appeared upon it and about the possibility of the planets striking against one another; about whether the soul can be seen, like a dove, fluttering away at the moment of death; they wondered whether at the second coming of Christ to Jerusalem, Peru would be long in receiving the news. They talked until the sun rose, about wars and kings, about poets and scholars, and about strange countries. Each one poured into the conversation his store of wise sad anecdotes and his dry regret about the race of men."

This was a quick read, and one that probably deserves to be re-read in the future.
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LibraryThing member sistersticks
This novel tells the story of 5 people killed when the famous bridge collapses. Each story explores human complexity, strenth and frailty. Each story demonstrates the waste of accidental and random death.

After reading writing of this calibre I can't go back to modern light fiction. I tried, I just cant. Put down that pulp. Pick up a classic.

(Read May 2008)
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LibraryThing member TheWasp
The bridge of San louis Rey collapses causing the deaths of five people. A fransician monk who escaped the accident delves into the lives of the victims.
I read this book in fits and starts and did it a disservice. The writing was subtle and intuitive but I kept losing the thread of the story.
Worth a reread - next time in a sitting.
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LibraryThing member Ambergold
Thornton Wilder’s 1927 masterpiece is a contemplative and delicately mournful work, brilliant in the simple power of its prose. Battling with God, fate, or destiny- particularly the God of the Catholic faith – is a facet that has preoccupied many authors, including Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, and Wilder brings his own unique vision to that individual struggle, viewing it with a mixture of bitterness and faith. He approaches it through the lens of a very human but very haunting question: Why did those people – those people in particular – die? So often throughout the novel it seems that someone else should have died – the close friend or relative or mentor of one of those who fell to their deaths, rather than the actual victim. Each of them – a brilliantly intellectual but half-mad matriarch, an intelligent, lonely orphan, a sailor with nothing left to live for, and a old, multi-talented man with the crippled son of a great actress in tow – has reached some sort of turning point in their lives, and is going to make a new beginning. Why then should they die? The book does not provide an answer – not in that way. Rather, Wilder’s answer to death, and perhaps in a way to the sacrifices exacted by death or God or whatever he considers the dominant force – is love. “Love...the only meaning.”

The characters are brilliantly drawn and sketched, particularly The Marquesa de Montemayor, a woman risen from peasant stock to become a noblewoman, but whose life is wasted in hungry, desperate longings for a daughter who despises her. From this hunger springs a series of brilliantly witty and profound letters which will be the wonder of every generation after her, while in between the writing of them the Marquesa plunges into drunkenness with the regularity of clockwork. Uncle Pio, similarly, a man born with a knack for life and success and the even rarer knack of loving beauty and talent without hungering for the woman who possesses them, is a character who burns with originality and pathos. These two, along with Esteban, the twin, are the three around whom the book is centered, while the two younger, Pepita and Jaime, act as supplements to them among the quintet of victims. The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a hauntingly beautiful exploration into the meaning of life and of death, full of tenderness and subtle ironies, and reminiscent of both Brideshead Revisited and The Bridges of Madison County. Not a book to be missed.
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LibraryThing member kant1066
This novel, perhaps more than any other in the history of American literature, asks "Can bad things really happen to good people?" On one day in 1714, the Bridge of San Luis Rey collapses, sending five people falling to their deaths. Brother Juniper, one of the witnesses to the tragedy, seeks to explain how and why this could have happened. The bulk of the novel, a concerted effort on the part of Juniper to justify the ways of God to man, is a carefully woven portrait of their interconnecting and overlapping lives, loves, successes and failures leading up to the day of the bridge collapsing.

The Marquesa de Montemayor, whose daughter treats her with supreme indifference, has just seen her move away to marry her husband, a Spanish Viceroy. She copes mainly by writing beautiful, elaborate letters to her daughter and son-in-law. The Marquesa becomes reclusive and introspective, and asks the local Abbess and proprietress of an orphanage for the company of one of her girls. Pepita comes to live with her and provide much-needed companionship. On learning that her daughter is pregnant, the Marquesa makes a visit to the shrine at Santa Maria de Cluxambuqua. On her return to Lima, accompanied by Pepita, we learn that they are killed on the bridge. We later learn through Brother Juniper that the letters she wrote are gems of the Spanish language and are canonized and anthologized for schoolchildren to learn ages and ages hence.

Another story revolves around two twins named Manuel and Esteban (Wilder himself was a twin whose brother died in childbirth) who, also under the protection of the same local Abbess, grow up to become scribes. Soon Manuel is taken in to compose letters for the extraordinarily talented stage talent who goes by only "the Perichole," who is in romantic cahoots with both the Spanish Viceroy and a local bullfighter (see Offenbach's eponymous opera, as well as the short story by Prosper Merimee). After Manuel dies of an infection, Esteban is enlisted to assist one Captain Alvarado on a long voyage, partially in order to pay for a present for the Abbess. On the way to buy the present, Esteban crosses the Bridge of San Luis Rey and his fate befalls him.

Uncle Pio, the Perichole's assistant, maid, and general counselor, has an interesting life of his own. Growing up as a diplomat, theater impresario, and Catholic shill during the Inquisition, he finds Micaela Villegas (see the historical personage of the same name, whom Wilder has only slightly fictionalized here), whom he trains and refashions in his own image, turning her into the best-known Peruvian actress of her time. After having become thoroughly disillusioned with the theatre and her success, she wishes to enter into proper society and wishes to never talk to Uncle Pio again. After some hesitation, the Perichole allows Pio to take her son and give the curious boy the proper education that he deserves. Leaving the next morning, they are the last two victims of the bridge.

Looking for one common thread to tie all of these disparate lives together, the reader is drawn over and over again to fact that they all see confounded by their personal searches for love and meaning. As much money or success they attain, we see lives beguiled by angst and beset by circumstance. By no means, and Brother Juniper would certainly have noted this in his book, do we find people who "deserved" to die.

But the Bridge of San Luis Rey has a sixth victim, one who didn't fall hundreds of feet into the ravine below: Brother Juniper himself. Having written his book full of the most diligent and ingenuous research in an attempt to find out why God would let this happen (was it punishment for evil? Or was God just indifferent to human suffering?), the Catholic Church finds his book heresy and they burn him for it. What was so heretical? Perhaps that he would be so presumptuous as to explain God's plan for the world.

As far as the form and structure of the novel are concerned, the first and last chapters, the only places where Wilder allows himself philosophical divulgence, are a little too cordoned-off for my taste, rendering the deeply resounding questions of theology and meaning merely peripheral. I feel that interlarding them into the lives of the five characters would probably have better achieved what was most likely one of his goals in the first place - to meditate on questions of fate, free will, chance, and mortality. Finally, while to pen, at the age of thirty, a novel this succinct and full of impact is an accomplishment in itself, I feel that tripling or even quadrupling the size of the book would have made the characters more realistic. But if that were the case, of course, it would not have the wonderful quality of being told to you as a griot would tell it, as the scintillating moral fable it is.
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LibraryThing member figre
Meh

Sure, this is well written. But there is just nothing here that makes me care, makes me want to continue reading, makes me understand why it is so well regarded. (The Pulitzer???) A bridge crashes and Brother Juniper decides to learn about the lives of the people killed. The people are of some interest, and their lives mingle slightly. But none of the lives are interesting enough to warrant my time. Nor, are any of the personal discoveries (the people’s, the brother’s, mine) worth the time. The only thing this has going for it is that it is a quick read. Yet, even being quick, it is not really worth the time.… (more)

Pages

160

ISBN

006091341X / 9780060913410
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